Noble House Hotels says it's now the time to "make up for missed memories" ~ birthday and anniversary celebrations, family vacations, girls' weekends, and more! This month I'll highlight a few Noble House resort properties here in Florida so you can start planning something amazing!
Have you stayed at any of these properties before? Which one is your favorite?
Ocean Key Resort & Spa, Key West
Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, Little Torch Key
Sole Miami, North Miami
Pelican Grand Beach Resort, Fort Lauderdale
LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort, Naples
Some people like to describe Club Med like "camp". This is probably pretty accurate, although you're not REQUIRED to take part in any of the activities. You could just lounge by the pool with a pina colada all day. But most people who I encountered during my visit to Club Med Sandpiper Bay were not lazing around.
The children's clubs have a busy roster of fun activities scheduled throughout the day...and the adults have not been forgotten!
Each Club Med is a little bit different. At Club Med Sandpiper Bay in Florida, there is a clear focus on wellness and sports academies.
What are the academies?
Unique to this Club Med property are the Tennis Academy, Golf Academy, Fitness Academy, and the Beach Volleyball Academy. Group lessons are included for those who are beginners or looking to improve their skills. For an additional fee, you can opt for private lessons or more intensive instruction.
Currently, the Tennis Academy is directed by Gabe Jaramillo and Scott Del Mastro and their coaching staff. Gabe Jaramillo has trained many top tennis players in the world. Daily group lessons are included In your vacation, whether you are a beginner or you've been playing for years. You can also include the Tennis Boost Package (at an additional cost), that combines a personalized coaching program with spa therapies, healthy cuisine, and specialized fitness training and analysis.
The Golf Academy is currently under the direction of Don Law, a founder and director of one of the largest golf training programs in the country. Group lessons (and full equipment) are included in your vacation package, for beginners up to more advanced players. Guests also have full access to the driving range, putting green, and practice facility. While you're visiting, you can also take advantage of the Active Boost Golf Training Package; if you can't make it, don't worry - there are also remote training options available!
If you're looking to train for a triathlon, or just improve your fitness overall, then consider the Fitness Academy at Sandpiper Bay. Though several packages are at an extra cost for more intensive focus on fitness training, there are several programs offered at the resort that are included, and geared for all levels. Each day, you can try classes in Yoga, Cardio Fusion, Water Aerobics, Zumba, Pilates, and more.
Beach Volleyball Academy
This is actually the first and only Beach Volleyball Academy in the world at this time. Like the other sports, there are group lessons offered that are included in your vacation package. But if you're looking to take your sport to the next level, a Beach Volleyball Boost Package is available.
With all of the enticements from the Academies, I'll admit that I didn't get a chance to try any of them. I think if I stayed for a whole week I would have had more time to branch out and try new things. On a day to day basis, I don't play tennis or golf or volleyball, and I don't have any current plans to participate in a triathlon.
However, my family and I did try to partake in some of the other sports offered around the resort!
Basketball ~ Soccer
I noticed that the basketball courts were often being enjoyed, but anyone who wanted to play could join in. There were also daily pick-up soccer games, including one for kids (every day at 5pm!) After a while, I noticed some kids on the field who seemed to be there all the time! I guess that was just their favorite thing to do!
Flying Trapeze and Circus School
This is a popular activity found at several of the Club Med resorts. I gave it a shot, and it was fun. Again, if I had more time at the resort, I think I would have been able to definitely learn some new skills! The staff at the trapeze was great at making you feel comfortable and confident!
Circus school and Trapeze were also highlights for my kids. Children as young as 4 years old are allowed to participate (though an adults-only session is scheduled each day so the grownups can have their own play time!). For kids, there is also a smaller version that they try before going up on the big trapeze.
Sailing ~ Standup Paddle Board
Though the resort is not located on a typical white-sand beach, it is situated on the St. Lucie River. So the resort's small beach is used as a base for setting out on sailboats and paddle boards, and some people do swim there. Instruction is given for sailing twice a day; once you've taken a lesson, you're free to take a boat out as often as you'd like. Kids as young as 6 can be passengers on a sailboat, but you need to be at least 11 to learn to sail.
Stand-up paddle boarding seems to be a new popular sport these days, and I finally had the chance to give it a try. I thought it was easier than it looks (I was brave enough to try it upside down too!). My 13 year old daughter really picked up on this and loved it. She doesn't really like typical sports, so I was glad she found a new activity that she enjoyed. That's part of the beauty of a place like Club Med - there is a huge variety of things to try, that maybe you wouldn't do in your day-to-day life, and it could turn out to be a personal favorite. You needed to be at least 11 years old for paddle boarding; but for kids under that age, but over age 6, they can be a "passenger" on an adult's board.
On my last day, I noticed an informal sign-up for a sunrise paddle board tour the next morning. It was a 2 hour tour, and included in your vacation package. Too bad we had to leave. I thought about Izzy and the folks at the beach the next morning when I was driving the kids to school!
Swimming ~ Water Polo
There were 3 pools at Club Med Sandpiper Bay: the main pool, where water aerobics and games were held each day; the heated lap pool for swim training (and water polo?); and the children's pool, which was a shallow pool with spray features and a small climbing structure.
Table Tennis ~ Bocce Ball
I saw plenty of people having fun with ping pong! The bocce ball court was not used as much, but my guess is that most people probably don't know how to play bocce!
Club Med Sandpiper Bay is part of a large group of French-owned resorts - over 70 properties around the world! Though Club Med may not be a household name in the U.S., it is well known in Europe. And as a result, a lot of Europeans visit the property. During our stay, we heard other people speaking in French, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and more. At evening shows, the chef de village (i.e. Village Chief, sort of like your 'cruise director') would make announcements in both English and French. As American English-speakers, we never felt out of place or had problems communicating with people. The children's clubs were very accommodating to children who spoke other languages too; I noticed at least one family of children who only spoke French, and the counselors spoke to them in French and made sure they were included.
The rooms are spacious, and clean. But they are not "fancy". On the outside, the buildings do appear quite dated. But on the inside, they have been reasonably updated. There are seven buildings in all, each with 3 stories (and elevators to reach upper floors). Club Rooms are the standard rooms, and most have balconies. Deluxe Rooms are the same size, with slightly different furnishings. You'll also get evening turndown service (with chocolates on the pillows!), a stocked mini-fridge (with water and sodas), robes and slippers for in-room use, and a nicer view. Catering to families, there are plenty of connecting rooms available, as well as Family Deluxe Rooms that have a separate bedroom area for the kids.
Tip: If the cost difference is minimal, definitely choose the Deluxe Room! The kids loved getting the chocolates on their pillow at night, and everyone appreciated the cold bottled water in the evenings, or to bring along to the beach.
If the overall look of the hotel underwhelms you, just remember that the highlight here is not "the look". The rooms are clean, and the food is fresh and tasty... but what's really outstanding here are the programs for kids and families, and especially the Sports Academies. In the next post, I'll highlight what really makes Club Med a great resort for families and people who like to be active.
If you're an adrenaline junkie, don't be fooled by Homestead. Yes, it's primarily an agricultural community, and it's surrounded by miles of nature. You might think it's a quiet or boring place...but do not be deceived! Read on to discover the thrilling adventures that await when you venture south of Miami!
If you're in the Everglades, the first thing that usually comes to mind from a tourist's perspective is an airboat ride. Technically, airboats are not allowed to run on National Park property, but there are several outfitters along the park's boundary that are able to take you on a high-speed ride through rivers of grass and up close encounters with alligators. One Homestead outfitter that can give you this excellent experience is Everglades Alligator Farm. You can also get up close with snakes and alligators in their variety of wildlife shows.
If you want to get up close with nature, but you'd prefer to stay in air-conditioned comfort, why not try a tour from Everglades Hummer Adventures? These are custom tours are "the only luxury adventure in the Everglades", and can combine with private airboat rides with your own captain! They'll even pick you up from your luxury hotel in Miami!
On a different note, you can also get a high-speed adventure at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The track was actually built in the mid-1990s as a revitalization effort after Hurricane Andrew devastated the area in 1992. By 2009, it was the first venue to ever host all of North America's premier motorsports championships (IndyCar, Grand-Am, Firestone Indy Lights Series, NASCAR's Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series). Today, you can buy tickets for a variety of races, or you can take to the track yourself and test your driving skills with the Richard Petty Driving Experience or Mario Andretti Racing Experience.
If that's not enough heart-pounding options for you, then take to the skies! At Skydive Miami, you can opt for a one-time rush experience, or become a skydiving student! If you'd like to be up in the air, but with a little less adrenaline, then consider Miami Gliders, with glider and airplane rides that last from 15 to 60 minutes, with views of the Everglades, Biscayne Bay, the Florida Keys, and more!
Which would you try?
A friend of mine has lived in Homestead for years. When I told him I was highlighting Homestead as my Florida Destination of the Month, he said, "WHY?!" Well, at first glance, Homestead isn't really a top tourist destination, like South Beach or Orlando. But there are actually plenty of interesting things to do!
Photo courtesy National Park Service
Homestead is about 40 minutes south of downtown Miami. There are only 3 National Parks in the state of Florida, and 2 of them are easily accessed from Homestead: Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. (The 3rd one is Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West.) Frommer's also lists Everglades and Biscayne National Parks on their list of 100 Places to Take Your Kids!
Everglades National Park is the number one spot for ecotourism in Florida. The Ernest Coe Visitor Center in Homestead is just one of 4 entrances to the National Park, and it’s open every day of the year. Several good walking, hiking, and biking trails are nearby, including:
There are also many options for bird-watching, boating, and ranger-led activities. Note that most of the Ranger Programs take place between December and March, when the weather is the driest, coolest, and most pleasant (read: mosquito-free). If you're looking for wildlife, you'll be likely to see alligators, many varieties of snakes and lizards, white-tailed deer, and more. For a complete listing, see the national park's website here.
If you're traveling with kids to Everglades National Park, be sure to check out the For Kids section of the park's website, where children can complete tasks to become a Junior Ranger and earn a badge! Note that many of the trails listed above are wheelchair accessible; this also means that if you're traveling with kids, those trails are stroller accessible!
Photo courtesy National Park Service
For another unique experience, head about 20 minutes east from Homestead to the Biscayne National Park. The Dante Fascell Visitor's Center is a good way to get acquainted with this park with a small museum that displays the four ecosystems found in the park. For kids, there's a touch table and the option to get started on a Junior Ranger badge. On the second Sunday of each month from January through May, the park hosts Family Fun Fest with hands-on activities for kids.
Photo courtesy National Park Service
But remember that 95% of the park is underwater, so the best way to really explore is by getting out on the water! Between boating, snorkeling, diving, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing, there's no shortage of water-based activities available. If you don't have your own boat, an outside concessioner runs snorkel trips, boat rides to the Boca Chita Lighthouse, and shuttles to Elliott Key for overnight camping adventures; just be sure to reserve ahead of time to guarantee availability.
And a reminder, no matter which park you choose, don't forget the sunblock and mosquito repellant!
photo courtesy Sarasota CVB
Fun Facts about Sarasota:
In 2011, Dr. Beach rated Siesta Key the #1 beach in the world.
John Ringling made Sarasota famous by making it the winter home of the Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1927.
The first golf course in the United States was built in Sarasota in the late 1800's by Scottish settlers.
Sarasota was just rated 2012's #1 Family Spring Break destination! It also ranked as the top city to retire to in the USA.
Sarasota has one of the highest concentrations of Zagat-rated restaurants in Florida. And during the first two weeks of June every year, Savor Sarasota lets you enjoy a 3-course dinner at many of the top restaurants for just $25!
One of the first "Segway Tours" in the USA started in Sarasota in 2003. Next time you're in town, check out Florida Ever-Glides Tours!
One of Florida's largest state parks is just outside Sarasota: Myakka River State Park. Explore the Canopy Walkway 25 feet in the air, take an airboat ride, bike, hike, canoe, or kayak (or all of the above!)
Starting summer 2012, JetBlue will offer nonstop flights from New York (JFK and LGA) and Boston to Sarasota!
If you want to fully explore the arts scene in Sarasota, then be sure to plan a long visit! Between the art in public places, self-guided arts tours, museums, and performance venues, you might even be hard-pressed to squeeze in some beach time! Here, Sunshine Travel presents a sampling of the arts scene to give you an idea of what Sarasota has to offer.
photo courtesy Sarasota CVB
Sarasota was once home to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. John Ringling and his wife, Mable, built a 36,000 square foot mansion on the Sarasota Bay, which they named Ca d'Zan. The Ringlings were also avid art collectors, and eventually built a museum to house their massive personal collection. You can experience both of these, as well as the Museum of the Circus and surrounding gardens when you visit the Ringling Museum of Art.
The Ringling Museum hosts many events throughout the year, including Ringling in Bloom (February 23-26, 2012, showcasing "flowers, fashion, and fine art"), Art After 5 (every Thursday, 5-8pm, with after-hours discounted admission ), the ViewPoint Lecture Series , and even Art of Food.
To immerse yourself further in Sarasota's ongoing art experience, visit Towles Court, an artist colony near downtown that landed a spot in Coastal Living’s “Top 10 Artists Colonies”. On the 3rd Friday of each month, all galleries are open to the public from 6pm-10pm during “Art Walk”. With refreshments and live music, you can meander through the various studios and galleries, or take in a class or demonstration. During the day, you can also take a Cultural & Arts Segway Tour through the area.
Fans of midcentury modern architecture are sure to be familiar with Paul Rudolph. Rudolph, a well-known midcentury architect, lived in Sarasota, where he built several buildings and homes. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) is a nonprofit that promotes and preserves Sarasota’s architectural legacy, including that of Paul Rudolph; check the SAF's upcoming events to see if there are any home tours or interesting lectures that you may be able to attend during your visit.
For those who love the performing arts, check the box office schedule at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, where you can get tickets for a variety of top-name entertainers and celebrated musicians, as well Broadway productions (and the occasional "Family Fun" production). If it’s opera you’re looking for, the Sarasota Opera House (built in 1926) has undergone a full restoration, and the Opera is currently in its 53rd season, featuring Verdi, American Classics, and lesser known operas in the Masterworks Revival Series.
If you happen to be visiting in mid-April, don’t miss the internationally acclaimed 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival, April 13-22, 2012. The film line-up will be announced on March 20; tickets will go on sale on March 22. Like most other arts programs in Sarasota, there is an outreach program aimed at kids. For example, there are special free screenings for kid-friendly movies, classes teaching the basics of screenwriting and film analysis, and even the chance for kids under 18 to submit their own short film!
No matter what your favorite art medium is, you're sure to find something you'll enjoy in Sarasota. Be sure to look at Sarasota's upcoming art events before your visit, so you don't miss out on something special. Have a favorite that I missed? Let me know, and I'll be sure to add it!
Siesta Key, courtesy of Sarasota CVB
While Sarasota may be known for being a quiet town, there's plenty to do with the kids!
First of all, the beaches are a big draw.… Siesta Key was rated the #1 Beach in the World last year by Dr. Beach. With soft white sand, and calm waters, it’s a practically perfect beach for the kids (and adults!). Other beaches right in the Sarasota vicinity are also nice, such as Lido Beach and Longboat Key, and you'll find several family-friendly beachfront resorts there as well.
Manasota Beach, courtesy of Sarasota CVB
Venturing south from Siesta Key, be sure to take your kids to Venice Beach, known as the Shark Tooth Capital of the World! (There's even an annual Shark's Tooth Festival every April celebrating this!) But don’t worry: there aren’t thousands of sharks lurking off shore waiting to take a bite out of you - what you'll find in the sand are primarily prehistoric fossils that wash up over time. Whether you stop at Venice Beach, Casparan Beach, or Manasota Beach, you’re bound to come home with some unique finds!
If you can tear the kids away from the beach, they'll be happy at G.WIZ, short for “Gulf Coast Wonder & Imagination Zone”. With 33,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, there’s sure to be something your child will enjoy. There are plenty of permanent and special exhibits for kids to explore, including a race track and a game called MindBall ("Compete against a friend to see who can move matter with their mind!"). For the younger set, there's even a "tot zone". Opening in 2012 is a Medical Simulation exhibit as well as a robotics lab. And for inventors of all ages, an all-access pass to a real fabrication laboratory (“fab lab”) is available so you can build your own invention from scratch! Click here to find out what you can actually make in a Fab Lab!
Mote Aquarium, courtesy Sarasota CVB
The Mote Marine Laboratory is one of the country’s leading facilities for marine research. Through their aquarium, and a variety of outreach programs, such as camps, school programs, lecture series, and more, Mote hopes to educate visitors on the importance of marine conservation and research. At the Mote Aquarium, you’ll find touch tanks, interactive exhibits, and the opportunity to see a variety of marine wildlife up close, including sharks, dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles. Through Mote’s Center for Shark Research, you can view several species of sharks, and see how researchers have learned to train sharks at a Narrated Training Session. At the Seahorse Conservation Laboratory, Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, and Dolphin and Whale Hospital, the focus is on conservation and keeping animals healthy; you can even adopt an animal of your choosing. If you visit before mid-April 2012, you’ll also get to see a special temporary exhibit, Penguin Island!
Nearby Mote, each Sunday at 2pm (except in summer), there’s a free water ski show right in the Sarasota Bay called Ski-A-Rees. Professional water skiiers put on a stunt-filled performance that everyone is sure to enjoy. And did I mention it’s free?! Also on Sundays (and also free), about an hour before sunset, head over to public beach at Siesta Key for the Drum Circle...there are drummers (of course), belly dancers, and plenty of curious onlookers for this unique event.
Myakka River SP, courtesy Sarasota CVB
Just east of Sarasota you’ll find the Myakka River State Park. It's one of Florida’s largest state parks, and is easily explored by hiking, biking, canoeing, or kayaking. A main attraction is the Myakka Canopy Walkway, the first public treetop trail in North America. Suspended 25 feet in the air, you'll literally walk through the trees to a 74-foot tall tower with even more spectacular views. Be sure to get out on the water and explore the Myakka River by canoe or kayak. If that's too strenuous, opt for an airboat tour on the Gator Gal, one of the world’s largest airboats!
For closer animal encounters, visit Sarasota Jungle Gardens, one of the longest-operating attractions in Florida (it opened in 1940!). Kids will enjoy shows featuring birds of prey, exotic birds, and reptiles. You can even hand-feed a flamingo - definitely a one-of-a-kind experience! A new playground and 10 acres of tropical gardens are an added bonus.
Ringling Museum, courtesy Sarasota CVB
And last, but certainly not least, consider a visit to the Ringling Museum. John Ringling, of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, made Sarasota the winter home for his circus in the 1920s. Today, you can visit the entire estate, which consists of the Ringling’s 36,000 square foot mansion, a museum housing their personal art collection, a circus museum, and more. Even though a museum complex isn't a "typical" kid-attraction, families (and strollers) are welcome; the Ringling Museum even has some fabulous suggestions on enjoying your visit with children. On the second Saturday of each month from 12pm to 2pm, there is a special family-friendly event called Center Ring Saturdays at the Circus Museum: a circus performer takes visitors “behind the scenes” and shares their insights on what it’s like to be part of the circus.
So when you visit Sarasota with your family, you'll have the opportunity to do more than just enjoy the best beach in the world. Your kids can also search for fossils, create their own invention, see sharks up close, watch a water-skiing stunt show, experience a drum circle at sunset, take a walk in the treetops, go kayaking or canoeing, feed a flamingo, and learn what it's like to be a circus performer... Contact Sunshine Travel to find the best Sarasota lodging (at the best price) for your family's needs!
A few fun facts about Key West:
Did you know that the concrete buoy in Key West that marks the southernmost point in the Continental US is actually NOT the southernmost point? The true official point is on a private island off the coast. Nevertheless, it still makes a fun photo-stop!
Did you know that Key West is closer to Cuba than the nearest Wal-Mart?
Did you know that January 22nd, 2012 marks 100 years since Henry Flagler's railroad first reached Key West? Click to learn more about the railroad and the historic importance of linking the keys to the mainland.
Did you know: Ocean Key Resort and Little Palm Island are the only two Lower Keys hotels to appear on the 2012 Conde Nast Gold List, Travel + Leisure's Top 500 Hotels List, and AAA's 2012 Four Diamond Hotels list. Be sure to contact Sunshine Travel before making a reservation; even though these resorts are highly acclaimed, there are still other great luxury lodging options available in Key West that may be better suited to your travel style!